Georgiana by Gainsborough
Children's portraits in eighteenth century England tended to be quite sacharine. But this one by Thomas Gainsborough, of Lady Georgiana Spencer - destined to be the celebrated Duchess of Devonshire - is different. Its feline features give a hint of the girl's inner troubles which, in adulthood, led to addiction and deep personal unhappiness.
Sir Godfrey Kneller, court painter to Queen Anne, captured a variety of likenesses of Sarah Marlborough. She was known for having 'a fury temper and a fairy face' the latter captured in this unfinished portrait by Kneller.
Sir John Spencer was laid to rest in the chapel that he had built inside St Mary's, Great Brington, his body lying nearest the altar of the chancel that he erected. The knight is in a complete suit of armour, with a tabard charged on the front and sleeves with the arms of Spencer and Spencer ancient.
"The Spencer Chapel" is now home to the mortal remains of most of the family who have died during the past 500 years.
The hall chairs
The 12 mahogany hall chairs date from the 1760s and were made for the entrance hall in Spencer House. Each one is decorated with the griffin from the Spencer coat of arms and the seats have rounded concave insets to make them more comfortable.
The reason they are not upholstered is a practical one – visitors might arrive wet or muddy from riding on horseback.
The square-bottomed seats have rounded concave insets to make them more comfortable. They are Charles, the present Earl’s , favourite pieces of furniture in the house.
The hall porter’s chair
The padded hall porter’s chair comes from the entrance hall of Spencer House. The hall porter would be on standby throughout the night, in case anything was needed by a member of the family or a guest, as well as for security. The hunting horn that is sometimes left on the chair can be seen in the hunting scenes above.
Every one of the 200 ceiling roses in the Wootton Hall is unique. Designed in 1729 by Scottish architect Colen Campbell – one of the founders of the Georgian style – the fine plaster roses complement the elegant proportions of the room. Sadly, Campbell did not live to see the ceiling completed – it was finished by Roger Morris in 1773.
The pair of blackamoors
Possibly the oldest pieces in the house, these ‘blackamoor’ torch lamps were given to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, by his brother, General Charles Churchill, to commemorate one of Marlborough's victories.
Intended for Spencer House, they were deemed too big and so found a home at Althorp. The torsos are Roman and were discovered perfectly preserved in the River Tiber, minus only their bows.
These jugs are a little worse for wear – probably because they used to live in the nursery. Prior to that they contained brandy. They are now placed in the Sunderland Room as homage to Jack, whose passions were foxhunting, farming and his prize-winning Shorthorn bulls.
The 28 paintings of the Third Earl’s prize-winning Shorthorn bulls are charming. Jack is notable for reining in the expenditure of the Estate during his time in charge, and the bull portraits are an important part of the Althorp collection, being the Third Earl’s prime artistic contribution to the place. John Charles was considered 'the great patron of English agriculture', not least because he co-founded the Royal Agricultural Society in 1838. He is visible in one painting, dressed in a modest way, with his dog beside him – not obviously a nineteenth century aristocrat; more a man at peace in, and at one with, the countryside.
Portrait of Lady Cynthia Hamilton, later Countess Spencer pic
This is a copy of the William Nicholson charcoal of Lady Cynthia, the Seventh Earl’s wife, because the original is part of the Diana, Princess of Wales Exhibition , which tours for part of the year. Cynthia was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother from 1937 until she died in 1972, and received an MBE for her charitable work. She was very popular and this drawing by William Nicholson bears an uncanny resemblance to her much-loved granddaughter, Diana.
Portrait of John Charles Spencer, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
John Charles (‘Jack’), later the Third Earl, is shown here in 1786, wearing Van Dyck pageboy costume. Jack Spencer went on to become Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is the only person to have been painted by Reynolds and also to be photographed.
One of the most striking elements of the South Drawing Room are the two recessed displays of miniatures with display tables underneath.
They contain a fascinating collection of this most delicate form of art, portraying many members of the Spencer family as well as important figures from history including Sir Isaac Newton, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Sir Peter Lely , and John Milton.
One of the most striking images is the tiny contemporary enamel of Margaret Willoughby, Robert First Baron Spencer’s wife, who died in 1597.
Portrait of the Duc de Chevreuse, by Frans Pourbus the Younger portrait
Claude Lorraine, Duc de Chevreuse has the air of an aristocrat, secure in his world of privilege and duty. Here is a man dressed in the height of fashion (padded Venetian doublet, whisk collar and matching cuffs, pom-pom laden garters) attended by his faithful Talbot hound. Twelve years after this portrait was painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger, the Duc was made Grand Falconer of France. In 1625, Charles I made him a Knight in the Order of the Garter.
War and Peace, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck
This imposing double portrait of George Digby, Second Earl of Bristol, and William Russell, First Duke of Bedford is by Charles I’s Flemish court painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Digby and Russell were related by marriage, and were close friends as young men. The subsequent English Civil War saw them fighting on opposing sides. This ‘swagger portrait’, showing Russell in warrior pose, while Digby is surrounded by symbols of learning, is considered one of the most important works of art still in private hands in Britain. As the son of a haberdasher, Van Dyck was particularly interested in costume, which is evident from his detailed rendering of the dress of the time.
The Sunderland Frames
Most of the paintings in the Picture Gallery are in Sunderland frames. These were designed by Robert Spencer, Second Earl of Sunderland, the most sophisticated owner of Althorp, who undertook the Grand Tour and was subsequently British Ambassador to Paris and Madrid. The frames all have a cartouche at the top and a stylised mask at the bottom, with a moulded inner edge, which softens the line between frame and painting. Perhaps the ultimate Baroque gilded frame, each one is slightly different from the next.
The Round Oval
WM Teulon redesigned Althorp’s grounds in the 1860s and the lake he formed took the name ‘the Round Oval’. The Spencer family and their guests used to skate on the ice here, in wintertime. The tranquil island in its centre is the final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales’ . At one end of the island stands a monument – designed by Edward Bulmer and carved by Dick Reid – marking this as a place of burial. On the south bank of the lake is the summer house brought to Althorp from the Admiralty by the Red Earl in 1901.
The oldest tree in the Park is the 72-foot Crimea Oak, which was planted by Sir John Spencer III, in 1589. He seeded a great forest in order to boost timber stocks as a response to the destruction of ships in the defeat of the Spanish Armada the year before.
Fallow deer have been roaming Althorp Park since its enclosure in the early sixteenth century. The herd of rare black fallow currently numbers 350. They have their young up at the back of the Park, near the Falconry. In the early evenings they come down to graze where there was once a lake, home to the First Earl Spencer’s collection of Venetian gondolas.
The honey-coloured ironstone and Palladian proportions of the Stables, make it the most satisfying building in the Park at Althorp. The architectural chronicler Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in the 1950s, 'It might well be argued that the stables are the finest piece of architecture at Althorp.' Charles, the current earl Spencer says, 'The only criticism I would have of the building is that it shows up Althorp itself, which has neither the Stables' warmth, nor their beautiful lines'. The deep Tuscan portico was modelled on Inigo Jones’s St Paul’s Church, in London’s Covent Garden. The Stables were built in the 1730s by Roger Morris. Until Victorian times home to 100 horses and 40 grooms, the Stables today house the new exhibition celebrating the characters of the Spencer family.
Sculpted by the Flemish carver Peter Scheemakers, who also made the busts of Shakespeare and John Dryden in Westminster Abbey, this stunning fireplace was moved to Althorp from Spencer House in London. The faces are of the Greek poets Hesiod and Homer.
Portrait of Albert Edward John, Seventh Earl Spencer
American artist John Singer Sargent’s sketch shows the Earl in uniform aged 23. Sargent was one of the leading society artists of the time and drew several members of the family including Jack’s father, the Sixth Earl. Significantly, the Seventh Earl was instrumental in consolidating the Spencer collections, overseeing the gradual move of treasures from Spencer House (still owned by the family, but not used by them) to Althorp.
A Regency mahogany library chair
This extraordinary contraption is fully equipped with a book or paper rest, candleholder and inkwell – the perfect chair for somebody studying or reading a book, it can be manipulated into various positions to allow the ideal pose for reading or annotating a text.
George John was addicted to collecting books, and spent excessively. He eventually owned 43,000 first editions, including 58 Bibles printed by the first British publisher, William Caxton. It also included early editions of Shakespeare’s work.
A pair of 18th century globes
These terrestrial and celestial globes from 1740 are both handsome and practical – Jack learnt his geography and astronomy from them. They have Chippendale-style stands with six cabriole legs balancing on lion’s paw and ball feet. They were constructed by John Senex who was a cartographer, astronomer, engraver, bookseller, publisher and geographer to Queen Anne. Senex believed, as did all other mapmakers at the time, that California was an island.
S door furniture
The 18th-century curled Spencer S-shaped door handles came from Spencer House, in London, which overlooks Green Park. Spencer House was built by the First Earl Spencer in the 1750s, and is a masterpiece of neo-Palladian design.
Portrait of Lady Jane Grey
This very rare image, believed to depict the ‘nine-day Queen’, is by Lucas de Heere and was owned by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Lady Jane is shown as a girl in her family home of Bradgate, in Leicestershire, before her ascension to the throne. Caught up in the scheming of various factions at court, the teenaged Lady Jane was used as a puppet to block the claims of the Catholic Mary Tudor. Ousted from the throne, Lady Jane was executed at the Tower of London in 1554.
Portrait of Sarah Jennings after cutting off her own hair
Sarah was a woman with a terrible temper – as the story behind this portrait shows. She chose to have it painted to commemorate a furious marital quarrel, after which she spitefully cut off the luxuriant auburn hair that her husband adored. After his death, many years later, Sarah found this same hair hidden with his most treasured possessions – testimony to the Duke of Marlborough’s great and enduring love for his fiery wife.
Rubens portraits of Philip IV and Elizabeth of Bourbon
The Daily News described George John as ‘the ablest administrator in the Government of Mr Pitt', but at home his feisty wife, the former Lady Lavinia Bingham, ruled the roost. When she saw two impressive portraits by Rubens in 1830, she set her heart on them – but was told by George John that the coffers were bare. She therefore sold some jewellery – ‘foolish pearls’ that she didn’t often wear – to fund the purchase.
SÀvres pot au tabac
This SÀvres tobacco jar has double strap handles enclosing a spoon, and is painted with blue and gilt medallions with berried laurel swags. It dates from 1765, and was probably painted by Louis-Jean Thevanet – one of the greatest porcelain artists of the age. This piece was designed to demonstrate the owner’s generosity – guests could help themselves to the tobacco contained within. George John, Second Earl Spencer, collected many French pieces for Althorp and Spencer House, and SÀvres was his favourite manufacturer of china.
Meissen flower bowl and stand
This Meissen bowl from around 1745 is a feat of artistry. Hundreds of tiny blooms thickly encrust the piece. The flowers are delicately painted with traces of foliage and internal gilding. It is fabulously ornate yet retains a certain organic simplicity because of the delicate colouring.
An asparagus piece
There is some debate as to whether this is a scent bottle, needle case or a fork holder. Whichever it is, it is a delightfully contemporary piece in feel and theme, and was made in Germany.
Marie Antoinette’s chocolate service
This dark blue Meissen chocolate service was made for the tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, to celebrate the birth of her son, the Dauphin, in 1781. The decorations allude to love, to birth and to the French royal family. Marie Antoinette was a friend to the two Spencer girls of her day – Georgiana, the famous Duchess of Devonshire, and Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough.
A portrait of Father Ignatius of St Paul
Born the Honourable George Spencer, Father Ignatius was the youngest son of the Second Earl Spencer. He grew up in Spencer House in London, and at Althorp, becoming an Anglican priest in the next-door parish of Great Brington in1824. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1830, before moving to the demanding Passionist Order. Father Ignatius became a noted preacher, advocating the return of Britain to Roman Catholicism. In 1864, worn out by the weight of his mission, he suffered a heart attack and died while sitting alone, waiting for a friend to arrive. The Roman Catholic Church has recognised that George lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’, and in 2010 he was declared ‘venerable’ by the Vatican – a step towards possible sainthood. There is a portrait of him above the chapel’s door; this photograph from the Althorp archives shows him in 1861, aged 62.
The carved oak screen
This screen is part of a pew from St Albans Abbey, which was used by the John Churchill, when Earl of Marlborough (before he received his dukedom). It has the Churchill coat of arms and Spanish motto (Fiel pero desdichado meaning ‘faithful but unfortunate’). This phrase comes from Marlborough’s father, Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688), whose possessions were confiscated after the English Civil War, for supporting King Charles I.
Family prayer books
The historic collection of prayer and hymnbooks in the chapel demonstrate its role in the life of the Spencers through the centuries.
This sixteenth century armorial stained glass comes from the original Spencer home – Wormleighton, in Warwickshire . The Spencer mansion at Wormleighton, which was four times the size of Althorp, was burnt down in the Civil War to prevent the Parliamentarians seizing it.
Althorp in 1677 by John Vosterman
Here we can see Althorp after Robert Spencer, Second Earl of Sunderland’s alterations, a century before Henry Holland’s overhaul of the House. Robert added pilasters to the exterior, and had the moat of the original Tudor house filled in and grassed over: the water stank in the summer, and spread damp in the winter. In this painting we can see the original Tudor red brick, which now lies beneath Holland’s mathematical tiles.
The Fifth Earl and Countess on Wimbledon Common
Sir Henry Tamworth Wells’ portrait of the Red Earl and his wife Charlotte – a great beauty, fondly called ‘Spencer’s Fairy Queen’ – is a classic piece of Victorian whimsy. The Red Earl was a keen champion of the National Rifle Association, a pre-cursor to the Home Guard.
The Red Earl was a man of great generosity and public-spiritedness, and gave Wimbledon Common to the nation. In gratitude, he was made a Knight of the Garter – the highest order of chivalry in the gift of the monarch.
Portrait of Sir Robert Spencer, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Resplendent in red robes, Sir Robert Spencer, in many ways the founder of the Spencer family, is shown looking prosperous and patriarchal by the Flemish artist so popular in Elizabethan and early Jacobean times. Gheeraerts also painted Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and James I. He was the most important artist working in England until the arrival of his fellow countryman Van Dyck, a generation later.
Portrait of Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer by Nelson Shanks
Nelson Shanks is one of the great society portrait painters of the last quarter century, from the United States. He asked Earl Spencer if he could paint him, as a follow up to his portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales. The portrait of brother and sister now hang as a pair. In his portrait, Earl Spencer holds the handwritten notes he jotted down, before writing the Eulogy for his sister, delivered at her funeral on 6 September, 1997.
Portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales by Nelson Shanks
Painted by Nelson Shanks in 1994, this portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales was completed around the time of her divorce.
It used to hang in the Princess’s home, Kensington Palace. It captures the princess in almost photographic detail and has a wistful, tragic, but undefeated aura.
Diana sat perhaps 50 times for this painting, and it became one of her favourites.
Very few painters managed to capture the sheer life force of Diana in oils. Here, Shanks has pulled this off with huge style
The Spencer ‘s’
The earliest recorded pieces of needlework in the house are the canvas work ‘S’ motifs on velvet drapes, made by Lady Dorothy Sidney in the mid-seventeenth century
The Reynolds portrait
Jack has the distinction of being the only person to have been painted by Reynolds, and also to have been photographed – an illustration of the scope of the changes that took place during his lifetime. He was only four years old when he was painted, capturing him in what has since become a traditional Spencer family pageboy’s outfit. Reynolds disliked painting hands, which may explain why one of Jack’s is all but hidden in the silk sash.
Bibles and prayer books
3rd Earl Spencer commissioned paintings in The Sunderland Room
Winston Churchill signature ('The Life and Times of the 1st Duke of Marlborough' in the Library - which I believe he signed to my grandfather. this 4-voulme work was partly researched at Althorp, in the 1930s)
In 1999, Charles, Ninth Earl Spencer planted an avenue of 36 oaks, one for each year of his sister Diana’s life. This continues a lengthy tradition of planting by the Spencer family. The oldest tree in the Park is the 72–foot Crimea Oak, which was planted by Sir John Spencer III, in 1589. He seeded a great forest in order to boost timber stocks as a response to the destruction of ships in the defeat of the Spanish Armada the year before.
A special self-supporting scaffold covered the house while the roof and exterior were being restored between 2009 and 2011. 48 tonnes of new stonework were added, replacing the decayed originals. In addition to this, 120 tonnes of fresh lead were used to replace the cracked 2,382-square-metre roof. The project took two years but should see Althorp withstand many decades in good health.
Britannia by Mitch Griffiths
Self-taught artist Mitch Griffiths juxtaposes the classic techniques and compositions of the Old Masters with acerbic social commentary. His detailed, figurative paintings are bluntly honest and thought provoking. Earl Spencer bought this and Rehab (hung between the Wootton Hall and the Library) in 2010 to consolidate the magnificent art collection at Althorp.
Edward Burra watercolour of ‘Dublin’
Charles Spencer says; ‘In my 20 years at Althorp I have added various pieces of a later era. In particular, I have collected works by Edward Burra, an artist I fell for after attending a gallery opening in Chelsea 25 years ago. In the mid-1980s he was not as popular as now, and his work was undervalued: I bought a large and dramatic opera design by him with my first pay cheque as a broadcaster. Since then I have bought a further handful of Burra’s watercolours, which I love for their originality, vibrancy, and quirkiness. One of his paintings recently sold for £2 million. The ones I have at Althorp are not of that quality, but they are not out of place in the house, and stand as contributions from my years of stewardship to the historic collection.’
The Seventh Earl opened Althorp to the public from 1953, giving guided tours himself. He had tried to interest the National Trust in taking over the house, but its roof was in too great a state of disrepair for the organisation to contemplate. The Seventh Earl had a passion for his family’s history, but sometimes became exasperated by paying visitors who didn’t share his encyclopaedic knowledge of art and furniture history. He was so careful to protect the interiors he provided caps for ladies to place on their stilettos to limit damage to the floors.
Portrait of Lady Spencer
Lady Cynthia Hamilton, a daughter of the Third Duke of Abercorn, became Jack’s wife in 1919, and was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother from 1937 until her own death in 1972. She received an MBE for her charitable work, and the hospice in Northampton remembers her great popularity by still carrying her name. This portrait by Ben Nicholson bears an uncanny resemblance to her much–loved granddaughter, Diana, Princess of Wales.
Portraiture on horse with Althorp behind
The Seventh Earl was very hands-on. He liked to rinse the china and dust the books in the library himself – he was immensely proud of his heritage and the treasures accrued by the family. This painting of him on his favourite horse, Miss Magtart, with Althorp in the background, shows him at ease outside the ancestral home.
As Chairman of Royal College of Needlework, one would expect the Earl to have an interest in the craft, but his was a practical appreciation and these chairs serve as an example of his own skill.
Summer House, Round Oval
The Red Earl bought this summer house from Admiralty House’s gardens in 1901. It was moved to the sunny, south bank of the lake in 1926 and since 1997 has been dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, whose lakeside burial place it overlooks. The summer house has been embellished with a central silhouette of Diana in black marble on white in its centre, with tablets containing a quote from Diana on one side, and one from her brother’s eulogy at her funeral on the other.
These are the family’s favourite chandeliers in a house brimming with not short of beautiful lighting. These simple, elegant chandeliers came to Althorp from Dublin Castle following the Red Earl’s Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland. The finely cut crystal demonstrates the refractive qualities synonymous with Waterford’s creations, but they also have a simplicity about them that chimes with Honest Jack’s principles and accomplishments.
The Red Earl owned the first known pair of running spikes. Spiked running shoes were first developed in 1852, and by the 1860s English spikes had become popular the world over. Wimbledon Common became a centre for all kinds of sports after the Red Earl donated it to the nation. It is home to the world’s oldest cross country club, the Thames Hare & Hounds, founded in 1868. The Spencer Club was founded four years later, and today has 500 members.
The Red Earl bought these vases for his wife Charlotte. They are decorated with putti representing the four seasons, and are notable for their lack of gilding.
The Red Earl’s passion was foxhunting. This prize-winning hound, ‘Forager’, was his favourite, hence the life-sized bronze, which he commissioned in 1893. Forager is captured for all time, his tail erect, in perfect shape, the leader of his master’s pack.
Pottery brown bulls
These jugs are a little the worse for wear – probably because they used to live in the nursery. Prior to that they contained brandy. They are now placed in the Sunderland Room as homage to Jack, whose passions were foxhunting, farming and his prize-winning Shorthorn bulls.
John Charles was considered 'the great patron of English agriculture', not least because he helped found the Royal Agricultural Society in 1838. He also bred Shorthorn bulls and these paintings celebrate his prizewinners. He was a keen foxhunter and, when he had commitments at Parliament, kept a horse every 10 miles between Althorp and London so that he could ride speedily to the countryside to join the local Pytchley hunt.
These terrestrial and celestial globes from 1740 are both handsome and practical – Jack learnt his geography and astronomy from them. They have Chippendale-style stands with six cabriole legs balancing on lion’s paw and ball feet. They were constructed by John Senex who was a cartographer, astronomer, engraver, bookseller, publisher and geographer to Queen Anne. Senex was convinced that California was an island.
Sèvres pot au tabac
This Sèvres tobacco jar and cover has double strap handles enclosing a spoon, and is painted with blue and gilt medallions with berried laurel swags. It dates from 1765, and was probably painted by Louis-Jean Thevanet – one of the greatest porcelain artists of the age. George John, Second Earl Spencer collected and commissioned pieces by Sèvres.
A world-class library
George John spent most freely on his famous library, which eventually comprised 43,000 first editions. His library included 58 bibles by William Caxton the first English retailer of printed books. It also contained illustrated original editions of Shakespeare’s work. It was sold in 1892, and much of it can now be seen at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
Marie Antoinette chocolate set
This Meissen chocolate set-for-one is believed to have been made for Marie Antoinette to celebrate the birth of her son, the Dauphin, in 1781. The decoration alludes to love, birth and the French royal family. Marie Antoinette was a friend of the Spencer daughters, Georgiana and her sister Henrietta.
Meissen card box
This highly unusual porcelain box contains four smaller boxes inside. These were to hold counters used in card games. The outside has visual references to card games and the inside has a detailed still life.
Angelica Kauffman family portrait
Here we see Georgiana just before her marriage, with her brother, George John, Second Earl Spencer, and sister Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough. It was painted by the Swiss-Austrian Neoclassical artist in 1774.
Scape Flood by Stubbs
Painted in 1777, this is a classic equestrian portrait by Stubbs, demonstrating his unmatched interest in anatomical accuracy. Scape Flood was a thoroughbred Bay owned by Georgiana’s husband, the First Earl Spencer.
Designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, the tableaux above these mirrors tell the story of the power of Georgiana and John’s love. Griffins from the Spencer coat of arms pull the chariots, which are driven by cherubs – representing love. The First Earl was saying to his wife, through this symbolism: when their love life is going well, then he – the Spencer griffin – could surge ahead. However, when there is a problem in their love life, then he comes to a grinding halt.
One of the loveliest pieces at Althorp is the beautiful 18th-century cabinet given to Georgiana by her husband John and their three children: George John, Georgiana and Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough.
The message inlaid into the wood is that they (represented by their carved initials, surrounding hers) aiment - or love - her.
Lady Jane Grey portrait
This very rare image of the ‘nine day Queen’ by Lucas de Heere was owned by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Lady Jane is shown as a girl in her family home of Bradgate, in Leicestershire, before her ascension to the throne. Caught up in the scheming of various factions at court, the teenaged Lady Jane was used as a puppet to block the claims of the Catholic Mary Tudor. Ousted from the throne, Lady Jane was executed at the Tower of London in 1554.
The Marlborough silver
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, left this extraordinary collection to the Spencer family. It comprises pilgrim bottles, plates, dishes, candlesticks and wine cisterns that were accumulated by the First Duke of Marlborough and taken on his European campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession. It is still used on important occasions at Althorp.
The Washington Chest
Made around 1650, this chest was owned by the Washington family before they emigrated to America. The Spencers lent the Washingtons – their second cousins – a home near Althorp when the Washingtons suffered financial catastrophe. The Washingtons left this chest behind in their home, when they moved on. The house is still called ‘Washington Cottage’.
Built in 1613 of the local ironstone, the Falconry provided an elevated point in the Park for the ladies of the household to view the men enjoying the sport of falconry. This Jacobean structure originally lacked glazed windows, since it was not designed to be inhabited. Tucked at the back of the Park, it became the present Earl Spencer’s base at Althorp from the age of 19 until he inherited the estate in 1992. Alteration of the upper floor in 1818 revealed watercolour murals depicting figures in Tudor dress.
Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Resplendent in red robes, Sir Robert is captured looking prosperous and patriarchal by Gheeraerts, the Flemish artist so popular in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and then King James I – he painted both monarchs, and many of their principal courtiers. He is believed by many to be the greatest portrait painter in England until Anthony Van Dyck arrived in 1632.
A Venetian Nobleman by Lorenzo Lotto
Influenced by Giovanni Bellini, Lotto was part of the Venetian School. Despite his talents, he had many competitors and struggled to earn a living. This is one of the oldest paintings in the collection, but Lotto’s prowess is such that the portrait looks fresh and contemporary.
Althorp House and Park
Wool was one of England’s great exports, and Sir John built up considerable wealth on the strength of his 19,000–head flock, founding what was to become a sheep–farming and land–owning dynasty in the midlands of England.
Coat of arms
Sir John was knighted by Henry VIII and consequently could ‘bear arms’. The Spencer coat of arms shows scallop shells (symbolic of a member of the family having been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land), an Earl’s coronet and battle helmet and, at the top, the crest in the form of a demi–griffin. The creatures supporting the shield are a female griffin (half–lion, half–eagle and representative of strength, vigilance and wisdom) and a wyvern (a mythical sea creature with a dragon’s head and tail, and also wings). The motto ‘Dieu defend le droit’ translates from the French as ‘God defends the right’.